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Why your 1:1 meetings are a waste of time (and how to flip the script)

It’s a sad reality that many managers don’t regularly hold 1:1 meetings with their direct reports. In fact, our research for the 2019 People Management Report found that more than 20% of employees meet with their manager less frequently than once a month—a frequency that negatively impacts their management effectiveness. These misguided managers are missing a key opportunity to improve an employee’s performance, engagement, sense of purpose, and personal connection to the company and the manager.

Even if you’re regularly having 1:1 meetings with your team members, that doesn’t mean these sessions as effective as they can or should be. When 1:1 meetings are poorly executed, they waste precious time that could be better spent producing meaningful work.

If you’re holding regular 1:1s with your direct reports but not experiencing the results you’re looking for, it may be for one of these reasons:

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You’re doing too much.

Managers should keep in mind that the bulk of the 1:1 interaction is the employee’s responsibility. As Russ Laraway states on the Radical Candor blog, “Your employee owns the agenda”. Managers are so used to being in charge, they often drive the agenda out of habit. Develop ownership in your employees by taking the co-pilot seat during 1:1s and asking them to prepare an agenda for your conversations in advance of the meeting. 

You’re not keeping good notes.

If the beginning of your 1:1s are spent rehashing previous conversations, that’s a problem. There’s a reason professional coaches take session notes. Managers should do the same in order to understand the arc of an employee’s performance and development and identify recurring themes that present themselves over time.

You’re not preparing in advance.

Have you ever experienced a time when the calendar notification for your 1:1 popped up and you were completely unprepared? It’s a common occurrence. Instead of walking in and winging it, build some prep time into future sessions. This could be as simple as scheduling 5-10 minutes before your 1:1s to review prior session notes and jot down a few follow-up questions so you can be fully present during your conversation.

If any of those derailers hit a bit close to home, never fear! There’s an easy way to get your 1:1 meetings back on track. Successful execution comes down to proper planning. 

Here are 10 suggestions of topics to include in your next 1:1 meeting:

  • Who, what, where, when. These basics will help you track your sessions over time. Noting where the meeting took place is also a good reminder to vary your meeting location every once in a while.
  • Quick manager check-in. This part’s easy; just describe how you’re feeling today. The goal is simply to make a personal connection to start the dialogue. You also build trust and openness by sharing first.
  • Quick employee check-in. Now it’s your employee’s turn. What word best describes how they’re feeling today? Are they up or down?
  • “Every time” items (manager). If you have regular KPIs, OKRs, or other metrics or topics that need to be reviewed every session, get these out of the way early. This information provides context for the rest of the session−be careful not to overdo this part. If you find yourself doing most of the talking and asking most of the questions, that’s an indication you’re doing too much.
  • Session topics (employee). This is where your employee takes ownership of the agenda. Help them develop healthy habits of critical thinking, prioritization, and communication by making a list of topics they’d like to cover during your time together.
  • Priorities and “not doing” list. Have your employee present a stack-ranked listing of priorities. Be sure to have them include a “cut line” with activities or projects that aren’t actively being worked listed below the line. These may include projects or deliverables that are a lower priority or just aren’t ready to be worked. It’s constructive for you both to acknowledge that these are floating out there but with no expectation of immediate progress.
  • Goals (long-term and short-term). The most successful people in life are driven by goals. Help your employees set SMART goals for their work, career development, and any other major aspect of their work and personal lives. Support them in holding themselves accountable for achieving these with regular accountability check-ins.
  • Scoreboard. This is another simple but powerful exercise. Ask your employee to rate their work life and their personal life on a scale of 1-10 (1 being poor, 10 being excellent). Explore any low ratings by asking probing questions to better understand the situation. Work with your employee to create an improvement plan for areas of opportunity.
  • Feedback for the manager. The 1:1 isn’t the best setting to provide feedback to the employee. Instead, the 1:1 is a good time for you as a manager to ask, “What could I be doing better as your manager?”
  • Next actions. Over the course of the session, be sure to note any new action items for you or for the employee. Get into the habit of ending each session with a review of action items. Be sure to follow up with an email summarizing the conversation and action items, then check in on progress during future 1:1 sessions.

How do your 1:1s hold up? Do your 1:1 meetings have room for improvement? If so, which of these topics will you be adding to your script? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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